Exercise Science Students Experience Ikaria Blue Zone

Exercise Science Students Experience Ikaria Blue Zone

Imagine a place where there is no need of clocks, a place where people disconnect from social media and make family and friends priority, a place where no one goes to the gym because exercise is built into the normal daily routine.

On June 23, CHHS students in the EXS 494: From Danger Zone to Blue Zone, Ikaria, Greece class experienced just that as they traveled to the tiny Aegean Island of Ikaria, Greece for a 17-day immersion into the culture of one of five Blue Zones in the world.

Blue Zones are regions where people live much longer than the average. The term “Blue Zones” was first used by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner in his Secrets of Long Life article that was published in the 2005 edition of National Geographic Magazine.

According to Buettner’s website on Blue Zones, one in three Ikarians make it to their 90s. The islanders are almost entirely free of dementia and some of the chronic diseases that plague Americans. How is this possible? A combination of factors explains how, including geography, culture, diet, lifestyle and outlook.

Exercise Science Program Coordinator Lisa Sprod said the purpose of the trip was to expose the students to the culture in a first-hand experience. “We can read about behaviors and lifestyles of people living in blue zone areas, and while that is helpful, to actually go and talk to them and see how they live their lives is so much more powerful.”

The students, who were from a variety of majors, including exercise science, nursing, public health, recreation therapy and psychology, were immersed into the Ikarian lifestyle, which was much different than anything they had ever experienced before.

The food there is really healthy,” Sprod said. There were no Cook Out’s or Chick-fil-A’s, only restaurants that served plant-based, farm-to-table meals. After a few days of eating this way, many of the students started to notice how much better they felt and expressed an interest in continuing that way of eating.

Sprod said there was very little Wi-Fi access, and so the students experienced being disconnected and living in the moment.

“Ikarians aren’t glued to their cell phones like we are in the states,” she said. “They are more likely to enjoy long meals together and not be hurried to get the check and move onto the next thing or eating on the run, so students also had to get used to that when we went out to eat, we might be sitting there for two hours having meaningful conversations.”

One of the most challenging things was making it to appointments on time, Sprod said. Ikarians are known for not owning clocks, which is another important piece of their longevity. The good thing, though, was they had some leeway time, since Ikarians do not meet at specific times.

Another part of the Blue Zone formula for longevity is physical activity. Ikarians are very physically active and have made it a part of their normal day-to-day lifestyle. Sprod said the group did a full-day hike through eight miles of mountainous terrain.

“It was very challenging,” she said, “and it really pushed a lot of the students well beyond what they were used to doing. It was a highlight moment for some of them, who were really challenged and overcame that challenge and now have more self-confidence.”

Sprod said many of the students told her the trip was one of the most impactful experiences of their life.

“It’s important for students to get out of their comfort zones and see how other cultures do things,” she said, “and especially in these Blue Zone regions where there is a higher concentration of centenarians.”

Exercise Science student Kristen Martinez (’19) said the people in Ikaria are some of the most genuine she has ever met. She was always greeted with a warm smile no matter where she went. The Ikarians have a strong sense of community. From young to old, everyone is included. The people do not rush throughout their day. In fact, they live in the moment, without worrying about all the things they have to do later. After participating in a farm-to-table lunch, Martinez said she has adapted to a Mediterranean style diet based on greens, beans and vegetables.

“I came back from this trip inspired to better myself and encourage my family and friends to do the same,” Martinez said.

Exercise Science student Emma Baer (’19) said the experience was more than she could have ever imagined. Coming from a world of making plans, setting times and organizing details, the laid-back lifestyle of the islanders took some getting used to. She said it was strange to live without a clock, but she discovered that by not putting emphasis on what time is was, time was not working against them as if often feels like in the U.S. The Ikarians taught her how to let go of things that are out of her control because part of their longevity is attributed to removing stress.

“I now understand the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, because nothing good ever comes from staying in it,” Baer said. “Ikaria taught me that life is not as complicated as we tend to make it—simple does not mean boring—and the world is absolutely beautiful and meant for you to explore.”

Exercise Science Assistant Professor Michel Heijnen, who co-led the trip, said it was not only important for understanding the lifestyle of people living in Blue Zones, but also understanding how to apply the knowledge about longevity into their own lives back in the U.S.

The trip marks the fifth time CHHS has taken a group of students to Ikaria. Sprod spoke about a future trip that Heijnen and her would be leading, to the Blue Zone of Sardinia, Italy, as well as Ikaria, Greece next summer, giving students the experience of two Blue Zones in one trip. The trip will be offered during the Summer 1 session. For more information, contact Michel Heijnen at heijnenm@uncw.edu or Lisa Sprod at sprodl@uncw.edu.

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